Empty and Aching; Time to Search for America

by Mark Pontoni   May 2, 2020


On Saturday and Sunday nights during the COVID-19 pandemic, musicians have been playing live streams on Facebook and other social media.  These are just more examples of the unselfish contributions people have been making to help get us all through this.  It would be a stretch to call these “concerts” heroic in the face of the true heroism of nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, etc. who are on the front lines of trying to keep people alive.  Restaurant workers, delivery people, trash guys, etc., are all working hard to keep our bodies alive and our environment safe.  But musicians.  Ah, musicians.  They’re  working hard to keep our souls alive.

I been catching Mike Ridley and Dane Tollas playing for us as often as I can, and as I sit by myself in my dark television room watching them do their thing on the big screen (yeah, I’m like a bona fide tech wizard), I honor that surreal place they take me during times of deep worries.

I’m tempted to go off on a rant here comparing these simple but overwhelmingly important unselfish acts by guys like Ridley and Tollas to the actions of those threatening our safety by lining up at Dairy Queen windows, Corn Dog stands, and packing into Home Depot without wearing masks.  I want to further condemn the lunatics with the guns playing domestic terrorist at our Capitol.   But I’m in a good mood today, so fuck those guys.

Last night (May 2) I spent a little over an hour listening to Mike Ridley playing to his audience.  It seemed like a thousand people were online sending in requests and Mike just played and played, greeting as many folks as he could, and stopping only for brief moments to take a sip of what looked like full-bodied grape juice.  Gracious, and funny.  Non-stop.  Like me, Mike went to Walled Lake Central High School, and he has a huge following among the alums of that school.  It was pretty sweet watching the names of classmates scroll by as they chipped in their requests and their good wishes.

And then he played The Song.  I’ve always been haunted by Paul Simon’s “America”.  It seems that I always run across that tune during the saddest times in my life and I can recall moments of stopping whatever I was doing to focus on the song knowing that soon I would have some tears to mop up.

Last night, however, that song spoke to a much larger audience than just Mark Pontoni when he’s in the dumps.  Simon released “America” over 50 years ago during the Summer of Love when young people were struggling mightily with what their country was and was supposed to be.  I have no idea if Simon intended “America” to be anything more than a simple love song written by a wayward soul, but last night it seemed much more profound.  (I included the lyrics below, but find some time to listen to the song and you might see what I mean.)

That’s assuredly the great thing about music, poetry, painting, sculpture, fiction, etc.  The consumer can take the art where the art will let itself be taken.  These are the things that give our souls life.

As I reflect on all that’s going on in our country and in our state a couple of lines really stood out.

“Michigan seems like a dream to me now…”

Ain’t that the truth.  What happened to our state that saw men willing to be beaten in 1937 on The Overpass as they fought for the union rights that created America’s middle class?  What happened to our state that saw the birth of the SDS and the Port Huron Statement which once and for all articulated the contradictions between what America was supposed to be and what it had become?  Where are today’s Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Viola Liuzzo…all heroes of the Civil Rights movement…willing to be arrested and/or murdered for the greater good?

Today’s autoworkers vote for Donald Trump.  Walter Reuther be damned. Cowardly men waving Confederate Battle flags, sporting Nazi insignia, swinging around nooses, and threatening the lives of the Governor is how America sees Michigan now.

Yeah, Michigan seems like a dream to me now…

Later in the song comes the gut-puncher that gets me every time.  But last night, Simon’s song was not just for a melancholy me…it was for all of us.

“Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.  I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

We are lost. A lot of us are sleeping.  We are empty and aching. And we’d better figure out why pretty soon.


“America” lyrics by Paul Simon 1968


Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America.

Kathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve come to look for America

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces;
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, Be careful his bowtie is really a camera.

Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat.
We smoked the last one an hour ago.
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.

Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America



Thank you Mike Ridley, Dane Tollas, and all the musicians giving their time to help heal our souls.


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2 Comments on “Empty and Aching; Time to Search for America”

  1. Marcia Pontoni May 3, 2020 at 5:17 pm #

    That song has always been one of my favorites! Thank you for another excellent post. Keep writing! Your sister, Marcia

    • Richard Scott May 3, 2020 at 8:47 pm #

      So a man cave with big screen int which to retreat. Social communicating brings us out of the cave of despair. Yes. America.

      We don’t know why those whose Reuther unions braised their wages and work environment vote,mor if they do, for whom. Listened to the hardball guy Chris Matthews on conservative Sykes on bulwark two from opposite ends of centrist America pointed out the far on either side are closer than we might think. Given the retreat of the Democratic Party from the party of the worker and for reasoned capitalism were upset of the decline of our leaders into limousine liberals. So the ad suggests further decline. Some decline possibly that voters only watch or read stuff from their tribal pundits, some that scurrilous sound bites, or in the age of Callender, pamphlets, lead minds astray.
      But pandemics bring out the worst in the souls of all. That part of America which owes not only its trust in a city on a hill, one promised to believers, but also as Calvin and Shakespeare noted evil may lay in the heart of men..
      There is always a buck to be made, always someone to blame for pestilence either a religion, an ethnic fault, or poverty . Poverty like wealth is not due to fortuna but to god.
      We are faced with great turmoil and those who subsist on the idea that man can evolve must strive to gather those to invest in the world to solve problems with rising heat, lessening food and the obscene goal for rebuilding seventeenth century nations, each independent, walled and at war with neighbors over food, water, minerals.

      How we face turbulence together as America in and of the world may make a difference.

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